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Christoph Schäfer und Viviane Reding

Guest Commentaries

Who protects the digital rights of Europe's citizens?

Two views on the subject of data protection and digital rights in Europe are presented here. In a guest editorial, data protection expert Christoph Schäfer calls on businesses not to follow every technological trend without question. EU Justice Minister Viviane Reding puts her faith in the upcoming European data protection reform due in 2014. It should result in cost savings for the economy and shift more responsibility onto data-handling companies.

IT data protection expert, Christoph Schäfer, urgently warns against further trampling of basic privacy rights:

“At first it was thought that the NSA scandal would inject some life into a dull election campaign. However, topics such as VeggieDay, the Chancellor’s red, gold and black necklace, and the one-fingered salute of her opponent were deemed more important. And yet, we are talking about nothing less than our fundamental rights: rights that are held up as an example to the rest of the world.

At present, these precious rights are too often treated carelessly. The German Home Secretary has proclaimed security to be the basic right that trumps all others – an outrageous comment. Fear and anxiety are being stoked up to justify surveillance of all kinds. In the US, the effect of 9/11 has led to citizens’ rights and human rights being trampled on in the name of the war on terrorism.

It is quite right that no one is calling for the intelligence agencies to be disbanded. Similarly, no one is objecting to keeping terror suspects under surveillance. However, mass surveillance of a country’s citizens for no reason is disproportionate. On the one hand, the intelligence agencies are overstepping their remit by quite a long way, and on the other they may develop a dubious independent existence while political control committees fail to keep them under control.

Worldwide agreement needed

30 years ago, the German constitutional court wrote our laws on privacy rights. Even then, the lawmakers recognized that ‘Under modern data processing conditions, the free development of individual personality depends on the protection of the individual against unlimited storage, use and sharing of their personal information.’

It is the responsibility of the (German) political establishment to stand up for freedom. A worldwide agreement must be the goal. What do we do until that is achieved? That is the question companies with responsibility for protecting the information they process must ask themselves.

After all, their commercial survival often rider on protecting the security of this information. The ways in which data can be processed are constantly expanding. Smartphones and tablet PCs make it possible to access information at any time and from any location. Added to that are services in the cloud, via which companies can send their entire capital around the world in the form of information through glass fiber cables to be saved on servers over which they have no control.

Employees now use their own devices in order to work with company data. There is even a term for it: Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). Companies like it because it keeps down IT costs and employees like it because they do not have to carry around a second device. The question of the security of data accessed via (mobile) private devices is quickly forgotten.

Do not blindly follow every trend

New technical possibilities always have the power to fascinate. However, companies should not blindly follow every trend. Once data is lost, it is often very difficult to retrieve. If data is circulated online, it is virtually impossible to delete. Why is the recipe for Coca-Cola locked up in a vault? Ah, yes, it is supposed to stay secret.”

Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission:

“The leaks of the last months revealing the extent of data surveillance carried out by American and British intelligence agencies have made one thing crystal clear: Europe needs a universal data protection law with real teeth. After all, it is not just ordinary people who have been shocked by the snooping scandal; the business sector is also extremely concerned, and rightly so. Only people who are certain that their information is secure will trust companies with their personal data. Information is the currency of the digital common market, and its stability is based on trust. Lost confidence translates directly into lost income.

The European data protection reform will replace the confusion of national regulations with a single overarching edict. Companies involved in handling personal information will in future have just one supervisory body to deal with, even if they are active in several different member states. This simplifies internal processes and reduces costs. The data protection reform presents a great opportunity for the business community. It will allow them to show that they can deal with customer data responsibly and win back confidence. They can also profit from the European digital internal market: One continent, one set of regulation, one market with more than 500 million potential customers.

The reform will benefit German businesses in particular. They are already complaining that they have to conform with much stricter rules than their competitors, who may be located outside Europe but nevertheless serve the European market. It will also benefit ordinary Germans, 71% of whom currently lack confidence in the companies entrusted with their personal information.

I expect Germany to take the lead. Germany is a pioneer in data protection. Now is Germany’s opportunity to push through strict data protection standards for the whole of Europe. Otherwise there is a danger that others may get there before us – and establish global data protection standards that fall far short of our own.”

Christoph Schäfer is a certified data protection officer (GDDcert.). His area of expertise lies in consulting on questions concerning data protection legislation, technical and organizational aspects of data protection and the design and implementation of awareness raising activities. Since 2013, he has worked as a security consultant with Secorvo Security Consulting GmbH. Christoph Schäfer studied commercial law at the University of Kassel. From 2004 to 2007 he worked in Quality Assurance Content Security with IBM Internet Security Systems. From 2009 to 2012 he managed the development of the corporate data protection department at B. Braun Melsungen AG and advised the other companies in the group on all questions concerning data protection. From 2012 to 2013 he acted as an external data protection consultant for various small businesses.

Viviane Reding is Vice-President of the European Commission, responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship.

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